The Centrality of Impermanence

flowing waterIf there is just one thing you should learn about this world, anicca is it. It may be an exaggeration to say that anicca, or impermanence, is the core of the Buddha’s teaching, but when we look closely at this single idea, the whole of the Buddha’s teaching begins to open up.

In Buddhism, impermanence is one of the three “marks” of existence, along with dukkha and anattā, or unsatisfactoriness and no-self. Together, these three marks form the core of a Buddhist conception of reality. Understanding this reality is often described as tantamount to awakening.

Indeed, in Vipassanā meditation we are taught to note, or to simply direct the mind to “see” these three marks in all of our experience. To fully see these marks in a way that is unshakable, in a way that you simply cannot forget, such that your every experience of the world resonates: “anicca, anattā, dukkha” is to be awakened. This is no easy task of course, requiring perhaps lifetimes of effort. But this insight alone is enough to cut the roots of ignorance that tie us to cycle after cycle of repeated suffering.

As if to emphasize the centrality of insight into the three marks, the Buddhist Jātakas (birth-stories) describe numerous beings who gained awakening through the realization of these three marks without hearing any teachings from a sammā-sambuddha, or fully and perfectly awakened one. These beings became known as pacceka-buddhas, or solitary awakened ones, because they neither followed another Buddha’s teachings nor taught others what they had discovered. So even from the early Buddhist texts we are taught that one can become awakened without following any “Buddhist” path per se, by simply gaining insight into the three marks of existence.

 With insight into impermanence the very foundations of our suffering crumble  

So why is impermanence in particular so important? Because, as Ñanamoli Bhikkhu points out in his Buddhist Dictionary, ”It is from this all-embracing fact of impermanence that the other two universal characteristics, suffering dukkha and no-self anattā, are derived.” This may be helpful because so much is said and written by contemporary Buddhists about dukkha and anattā in isolation from the more fundamental fact of anicca. And many discussions on these topics, including my own at times, quickly spin off into abstraction, technical details, and heady philosophy.

And yet in the actual practice of meditation the “mark” that is most easily experienced is that of impermanence. With a stilled mind everything is experienced rising and falling. All is impermanent, from the pain in one’s knee: dancing, throbbing, pulsing, fading – to thoughts and ideas: arising as if from the clear sky and fading again into it without a trace, leaving behind pure clarity (or just more thoughts!). Watching this flow, the apparent “solidity” underlying our typical samsāric experience begins to crumble. If you’re anything like me, that solidity comes back a few minutes after most meditations, but experience of anicca is now undeniable.

With insight into impermanence the very foundations of our suffering and sense of a permanent, unchanging self crumble. Obviously, if all is flow and change, then this goes for our “self” too. Our suffering is a result of thirsting after and clinging to bits of the world that we wrongly believe will give us lasting happiness. Realizing anicca, our grip on all of this is loosened. This was described to me once by the young daughter of one of my friends in grad school. “We learn to hold that which we love not like this,” she said, holding out a closed fist in front of her, “but like this,” and she turned her hand over, slowly extending her fingers.

 …insight dissolves the very linchpin of samsāra  

To work at stilling the mind to directly perceive anicca is to traverse a path to openness, acceptance, and a welcoming attitude toward life.

This work may be done in many ways. Calming meditation, such as mindfulness of breathing certainly forms the most widely taught foundation. Further techniques are numerous and are best pursued with the assistance of a teacher. The best known route in the West is the “path of wisdom,” which directs the student’s stilled mind directly at anicca. However, this path is not for everyone. Buddhaghosa, in his Visuddhimagga, describes how the “path of faith” works in Buddhism, drawing the practitioner by the heart, not so much the head, into direct confrontation with the changing nature of all experience. Peter Harvey discusses the rise of the early “Cult of Relics” in stating that, “Buddha-relics can be seen to remind devotees both of the impermanence of the Buddha and his entry to the deathless (nirvāṇa); they are a presence that reminds them of the absent Buddha…”

Thus we see that it might not be such an exaggeration to call insight into anicca the central goal of Buddhist practice, whether it is through the path of wisdom or the path of faith. We can trace the route back from suffering, through clinging and our mistaken notions of a permanent, unchanging self and lasting happiness in things of this world, to this one fundamental aspect of experience as it truly is. When we truly “get” impermanence, the cycle of ignorance and what follows begins to unravel. We might say that this insight dissolves the very linchpin of samsāra.

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“The Meditator’s Atlas: A Roadmap of the Inner World” by Matthew Flickstein

The Meditator's Atlas

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What is the Buddhist Path? Can we become spiritually awakened through meditation alone, or do we have to take a more rounded approach? If we’re already free, why do we need to follow a path anyway? Looking for answers, Tejananda, long-term Buddhist practitioner and meditation teacher, follows The Meditator’s Atlas on a spiritual road trip to purification.

The Path of Purification (Visuddhimagga) is Buddhaghosa’s classic commentary on the way to full awakening. Buddhaghosa was a fifth-century Indian exponent of the Theravada or “Doctrine of The Elders” school. The Theravada bases its approach on the Pali canon which contains some of the earliest extant records of the Buddha and his teachings.

See also:

While it’s an invaluable resource for meditators, the Visuddhimagga is a huge tome and it can be difficult to see the wood for the trees. Matthew Flickstein’s “The Meditator’s Atlas” (formerly titled Swallowing the River Ganges and now totally revised) is a fairly short and clearly written commentary on the Visuddhimagga. It not only elucidates the nature of the path of insight according to Buddhaghosa, but also provides useful tools and meditations for every stage of that path, many of them based on the Satipatthana Sutta, the discourse on the foundations of mindfulness.

But what is the Buddhist path? In a telling passage right at the end of the book, Matthew Flickstein writes:

All paths, religions and spiritual practices are just more stories. There is ultimately nothing that we need to do or practice, since we are already free. And, again, the greatest freedom is freedom from the illusion that we are not already free – and all maps of the true spiritual journey lead us right to where we are.

So the question naturally arises “what stops us being where we are already?” Different Buddhist traditions have somewhat different approaches, different paths (including, naturally, the “path of no-path”) but all of them inevitably have to address the fundamental issue. We suffer because we unquestioningly believe that things are other than they actually are. This erroneous belief — delusion — leads us to fixate on what we take to be our “self” and we uphold this “self-view” by constantly engaging in stratagems of craving, grasping and aversion, and revulsion. The underlying delusion and these stratagems that arise from it — the “three poisons” — are what are preventing us from being “right where we are.”

Buddhaghosa outlines a “path of purification” leading to the eradication of the three poisons and the consequent realization of nibbana (nirvana). According to the author,

Although nibbana cannot be realized without having completed the purification process, nibbana does not arise as a result of the process. Nibbana is a self-subsistent reality that is not the result of anything. By following the path of purification, we merely eradicate the delusions and perceptual distortions that prevent us from discerning this ultimate truth.

The path –- and the book –- is structured round the fundamental “three trainings” of virtue, meditation and wisdom, subdivided into seven stages of purification. Acts that arise from craving or aversion — unethical behaviors of every kind – “sabotage the possibility of realizing the deeper states of spiritual purification.” Sitting meditation alone is not enough: “To reach the pinnacle of spiritual realization, we must align every aspect of our lives with that goal.” So the path begins with the purification of virtue (though it is never left behind). The author details the practice of the main precepts and the importance of “guarding the sense doors” against impulses of greed, hatred or delusion, while cultivating their opposites: generosity, loving-kindness and clarity of mind.

Then, “the purification of virtue manifests as states of mind unstained by thoughts or feelings of remorse.” This is the basis for the next stage, purification of mind, which is primarily about the cultivation of what the author (in common with many others) refers to as “concentration” of mind. It’s an unfortunate term, given possible connotations of furrowed brows; I think alternatives like “one pointedness,” “absorption,” or “integration” have much more helpful connotations. Nevertheless, whatever you call it, it’s a necessary quality, although, as the author points out, teachers differ greatly as to how much concentration is necessary for the cultivation of insight. Most of this section is, quite sensibly, devoted to one concentration practice –- mindfulness of breathing –- rather than the forty that Buddhaghosa outlines in the Visuddhimagga.

There are some useful observations in this section. For example, people sometimes comment that at a certain point the breathing “seems to disappear.” This can be taken as a “good sign,” or it can lead to anxiety and a loss of absorption. The author comments, “The reason we cannot perceive the breaths is because our concentration is not strong enough. If we keep our focus on the touch-point and make a concerted effort, we will be able to perceive the breathing process once again.”

A helpful emphasis of the book is that, although the author details the potential for deeper levels of absorption (jhana), he also brings out the potential for insight-cultivation on the basis of initial concentration. As he points out “unless we have an extended period of time to devote to the practice of serenity meditation, and have the proper environmental and teaching support, we face an extremely difficult challenge when we pursue the attainment of these jhanas.” If we believe that “insight meditation” can only be effective on the basis of extensive experience of the jhanas, we may hold back from insight reflections that we are perfectly ready for, and hinder our penetration into the essence of the Buddha’s teaching.

All paths, religions and spiritual practices are just more stories.

And it’s the path of insight (wisdom) that most of the rest of the book is about. The ways to insight that he describes are mainly around the contemplation of the impermanent, unsatisfactory and selfless nature of body, feelings, consciousness and dhammas (“phenomena”). But he covers a lot of ground, including all the stages of purification, and a lot of approaches, including elimination of the five “hindrances,” walking meditation, balanced effort and mindfulness of pain. Particularly helpful are the exercises and practical hints he provides for approaching each area of practice. For example, in the area of mindfulness of pain, he recommends sitting completely still for long enough that pains begin to appear. The issue with pain, he writes, “more than the unpleasant feeling itself is the fear of being overwhelmed by the experience” which leads to mental and physical tightening, intensifying the unpleasant experience. By softening and settling into the painful feeling, he suggests, we begin to see through our misperceptions about it. “We will then be able to … discover that there is no pain in the knee, back or other location as such. The place in which we feel the pain actually keeps shifting from moment to moment. Further, … between pulsations of pain, there is the absence of pain.”

The exercises, reflecting the Path of Purification itself, are carefully and progressively structured. Of course, when reading a book such as this, it’s always a temptation to skip the earlier and apparently less exciting stages. This is one reason why a book alone is not really enough without access to personal teaching or mentoring –- exactly as most books on meditation emphasize. However, any degree of penetration into the truths of the Dharma can have a revolutionary effect –- including what here appear to be preliminary exercises. If there is any area that is given slightly short shrift, it’s the place of positive emotions such as loving kindness in the path of insight, which Buddhaghosa does cover in some detail. But to deal with that adequately may have needed a much longer book. Overall, The Meditator’s Atlas is a helpful adjunct for those already practicing within a sangha (the general approach sits quite harmoniously with that taught in the Triratna Buddhist Community, in which I practice) and a good overview of the path for those new to meditation.

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